A Kuwaiti law requiring all residents to submit to genetic testing has sparked international outcry—and there are signs it’s also drawing a muted civil opposition from locals fearful of its scope.
The controversial law, passed in July 2015, mandates that the country’s 1.2 million citizens and another 2.3 million foreigners living in Kuwait submit DNA samples to a new government database. Legislators defend the mandate as a security measure to help the government keep track of criminals and terrorists. Geneticists and human rights groups outside the country call it a gross invasion of privacy.
The law has not yet gone into effect and experts say they’ve been unable to pin down a timeline from the government. But as Kuwait begins the shift to electronic passports this month, there’s renewed concern that the testing will start soon, perhaps with DNA tests for anyone seeking one of the new passports.
The law allows genetic data to be used for any purpose that protects the country and threatens punishment for those who refuse to comply.
“There are reports of a growing opposition within Kuwaiti civil society against this law,” said Mourad Dhina, the executive director of Alkarama, a human rights organization based in Switzerland that focuses on issues in the Arab world.
But Kuwait has strict laws curtailing free speech. Government critics can be swiftly prosecuted or jailed, so opponents of the law have had to tread very carefully.
“It would be very hard to see a more robust [outpouring] of popular disapproval,” said Kristine Beckerle, who studies Kuwait for Human Rights Watch.
But the silence doesn’t mean Kuwait residents support the creation of a nationwide genetic database—or that they’ll comply with the mandate.
Some are worried that information from the database could be used against them. There’s concern it could drum up evidence of infidelity—a crime in the country. There’s also widespread fear it could be used to strip residents of citizenship. Kuwait has strict guidelines on who can claim citizenship in the country.
There’s a clear example of what happens to residents in that situation: The Bedoon, a population of more than 110,000 people in Kuwait see themselves as rightful Kuwaiti residents. The government considers most of them “illegal immigrants” because they’re descended from Iraqis or Saudi Arabians. As a result, many Bedoon are unable to get a driver’s license, a passport, or other benefits of citizenship.
“Hundreds of thousands of people are afraid to take the DNA tests because they’re afraid fraudulent citizen claims would be unearthed,” Beckerle said.
The government is “trying to threaten people who might have come into the country illegally,” said Badr Al Mash’an, a human rights lawyer in Kuwait.
A suit filed in June by a separate human rights lawyer in Kuwait challenges the mandate’s constitutionality on a technicality. Kuwait’s constitution limits punishment to the individual committing a crime, but the genetic testing law would permit the government to jail parents of children who refuse to take the DNA test.
“There’s little hope [that the suit will succeed] because the court is under the control of the government,” Al Mash’an said.
The rumblings of civilian dissent inside Kuwait come as the law draws outrage from human rights activists abroad. A United Nations committee in July called on Kuwait to amend the law, saying it violated the right to privacy. The panel of 18 experts said mandatory genetic testing should only be carried out with a court order on individuals suspected of having committed serious crimes.
That pressure—along with the suspicion that hordes of Kuwait residents might refuse to take the tests—could be making the government reconsider.
Dhina said there are signs the government might forgo nationwide testing, instead opting to enforce the law only on individuals applying for new identification or passports.
If the mandate moves ahead with its sweeping scope, other Gulf countries that have considered similar mandates might consider following suit, Beckerle said. “If people in Kuwait and the rest of the world aren’t the pushing back against it,” she said, “there’s a sincere danger of establishing a really serious precedent on these issues.”